By Jason Pack – edited by Rhiannon Smith
Six years after protests first erupted in February 2011 against the brutal and repressive rule of Qadhafi, Libya remains a country beset by deepening political fragmentation, bloody internecine conflict and accelerating economic decline.
Jihadists in western Libya
The Umar al-Mukhtar Brigade was one of the most organised Islamist brigades to fight against Qadhafi in western Libya in 2011 and comprised a core group of former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) members and other jihadists, as well as non-jihadist Libyans seeking more sophisticated military training.
It was led by Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the former emir of the LIFG and a Libyan Afghan Arab who was tortured and imprisoned by Qadhafi for several years.
Following the fall of Tripoli on 20 August 2011, Libya’s interim authority the National Transitional Council (NTC) appointed Belhadj to head the newly established Tripoli Military Council. With financial and political support from Qatar and backing from his close ally Ali al-Salabi, Belhadj established the Islamist al-Watan political party.
However the party failed to win any seats in Libya’s first elections in 2012, and though he remains influential Belhadj now focuses on furthering his many business interests in Libya.
Many other jihadist militias were also able to infiltrate Libya’s nascent post-Qadhafi state through the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) and the Libya Shield Forces (LSF), umbrella structures established to organise militia involvement in police and military functions respectively.
The Interior Ministry’s SSC absorbed several Tripoli-based brigades that adhered to mainstream Saudi Salafism practices. The Tripoli branch of the SSC was led by powerful Salafi commander Hashim Bishr, with another Salafist, Abdurrauf Kara, commanding the Special Deterrent Forces (RADA) and Haitham al-Tajuri leading the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade.
Although these forces formed a key component of the Libya Dawn (Fajr) coalition that evicted the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), from Tripoli in July 2014 and fought against Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces, they are now aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and constitute its main power base in the capital.
An important rallying figure for many of Libya’s Islamists and jihadists is Sadeq al-Ghariani, who was appointed Libya’s Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, shortly after the 2011 uprisings.
He is a controversial figure who has issued a series of extreme fatwas (religious edicts), including a call for the gender segregation of universities and workplaces.
He is based in Tripoli and supported the Libya Dawn coalition against Haftar’s forces in the east. Al-Ghariani once implied that Haftar was a greater a threat to Libya than ISIS and argued against launching the anti-ISIS offensive in Sirte. Interestingly, there are longstanding tensions between al-Ghariani and many of the powerful Salafist brigades in Tripoli due to ideological and doctrinal differences in their religious practices.
Al-Ghariani is also the symbolic figurehead of the hard-line political faction led by Khalifa al-Ghwell, the prime minister of the now-defunct National Salvation government, which is both against the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli and against Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) forces in eastern Libya.
Ghwell is from Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, which is located to the east of Tripoli and draws its power both from its position as the country’s commercial hub and from the central role played by its revolutionaries during the uprisings.
Militias from Misrata were a key contingent of the Libya Dawn faction in 2014 and a number of the hard-line Islamist militias from the city now support Ghwell and his Islamist faction in Tripoli. However, Misratan militias also comprised the majority of the GNA-aligned al-Bunyan al-Marsus forces that fought against ISIS in Sirte, and many Misratan militias continue to support the GNA in Tripoli.
In late May, following the Brak al-Shatti massacre and Manchester attack, there was a significant shift in power in favour of the GNA after pro-GNA militias managed to evict the hard-line, anti-GNA militias from key positions across the capital. However, any shift in allegiances among pro-GNA militias in western Libya could easily lead to the collapse of the GNA and potentially strengthen various jihadist factions.
Jihadists in Central Libya: ISIS
In late January 2015, shortly after al-Baghdadi recognised the ISIS wilaya in Derna, ISIS affiliates in Tripoli attacked a prominent hotel used by Libyan government officials and Westerners, killing 10 people.
A few days later, ISIS released a gruesome video showing 21 Christian Egyptians – who had been kidnapped in Libya – being beheaded on the shores of Sirte. These spectacular attacks marked ISIS’s zenith in Libya as the group increased recruitment and extended its territorial control.
Many recruits came from neighbouring countries, and ISIS actually launched recruitment campaigns specifically aimed at foreign fighters, even establishing training camps for Tunisian fighters near Sabratha, a coastal city near the border with Tunisia. But Libyans constituted a significant number of the group’s rank and file.
By mid 2015, ISIS had taken control of Sirte and established its headquarters there. Sirte is a coastal city in central Libya that was a stronghold of Qadhafi loyalists and had been largely abandoned by Libya’s central authorities since 2011.
Powerful revolutionary militias from Misrata and Benghazi acted in effect as an occupying force in the city. This marginalisation created fertile ground for jihadist groups to put down roots, and as fighting intensified between the Libya Dawn and Dignity factions for control of the oil-rich Oil Crescent region to the south-east of Sirte, Ansar al-Sharia’s Sirte branch expanded its influence and social activities within the city, laying foundations upon which ISIS could build.
Although the powerful Misratan 166 brigade fought against ISIS in and around Sirte in the first half of 2015, ISIS proved resilient and for the next year Misrata focused on fighting Haftar’s forces instead.
However, when two ISIS suicide bombings in May 2016 killed Misratan fighters in Abu Grein, a village situated roughly halfway between Misrata and Sirte, the direct threat posed by ISIS’s proximity to Misrata appears finally to have provoked Misratan militias to launch a concerted counter-offensive against ISIS.
By this point the UN-brokered and internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) had been established in Tripoli. It set up the al-Bunyan al-Marsus (steadfast wall) operations room to coordinate a military campaign to defeat ISIS in Sirte, although in reality the Misratan militias directed operations rather than the other way around.
The al-Bunyan al-Marsus (BM) forces made relatively swift gains against ISIS throughout summer 2016, pushing the group back to the outskirts of Sirte. However, ISIS was able to use guerrilla tactics, sophisticated booby traps and suicide attacks to prevent the forces ranged against it from achieving a swift victory.
The GNA formally requested support, and on 1 August 2016 the US Africa Command launched Operation Odyssey Lightning, conducting 495 precision airstrikes against ISIS positions in and around Sirte by the time the operation officially concluded on 19 December 2016.
BM forces declared Sirte liberated on 5 December, yet some military operations continued to the south of the city, where many ISIS fighters and commanders had fled during lulls in the fighting.
Despite ISIS being evicted from the city, Sirte’s future remains uncertain.
Control of the oil-rich region around Sirte is highly contested by warring factions: the oil facilities and ports provide whoever controls them with valuable political leverage, especially at a time when the country’s economy is in dire straits.
This central region marks the geographic and strategic ‘frontline’ between rival political factions in the west and east of the country. Since December 2016, the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a coalition of Islamist militias that aim to retake Benghazi from Haftar’s forces, has sought to take control of the Oil Crescent region from the LNA.
After many failed attempts, in early March 2017 coalition succeeded in routing the LNA as far as Ajdabiya before the LNA drove the BDB back to its base in Jufra 11 days later.
Shortly after, hostilities between Misratan-led, GNA-aligned militias and the LNA escalated in south-west Libya, culminating in GNA-aligned forces attacking the LNA-controlled Brak al-Shatti airbase on 18 May, killing as many as 140 LNA fighters.
The backlash against this massacre led to a withdrawal of some Misratan forces from the area, however the situation remains volatile.
A zero-sum mentality favours jihadists
What Libya’s jihadist groups do, and how they interact with other factions, matters. The rise of jihadist groups and factions in Libya is both a cause and an effect of the lack of governance, instability and conflict which is currently plaguing the country.
No single political or military faction has the power or resources to control the whole country, yet the zero-sum mentality that pits each faction against every other means that well-organised jihadist groups have as much chance as any other group of exerting power over specific cities or regions, as ISIS demonstrated in 2015.
Although some mechanisms for negotiating a political solution to the crisis are in place, the recent escalation of conflict between rival factions in central Libya threatens to push the country into full blown civil war, a scenario that would play to the strengths of the currently weakened but resilient jihadist groups.
Libya’s jihadists do not constitute a discreet entity in terms of ideology, organisational structure, allegiances or location, so they can never be completely defeated in a military sense.
The key to reducing the power and influence of these factions is to address the marginalisation, insecurity and normalisation of violence that have facilitated jihadist recruitment and given a sheen of legitimacy to their brutal tactics.
Jason Pack – Founder, and Libya-Analysis, President
Rhiannon Smith – Libya Analysis, Managing Director